Alternative Medicine

Understanding alternative medicine

An introductory guide to alternative medicine

Also known as complementary medicine, alternative medicine covers a wide range of treatments that people use all over the world to deal with their symptoms and to seek cures for their conditions. Although it lies outside the orbit of conventional, western medical science, certain alternative therapies are gaining ground in some hospitals. In places where western medicine is restricted or unavailable, alternative medicine is still the mainstay of healthcare for many people. Although some people are quite happy to accept two different medicinal frameworks, others deride alternative remedies as nothing more than quackery.

When did alternative medicine begin?

The term alternative medicine first came into widespread use in the 1970s, usually to distinguish specific traditional remedies and forms of medicine drawn from eastern cultures from conventional medical science. That said, the roots of many of the treatments associated with complementary medicine are much older, and some are even prehistoric. Before the Age of the Enlightenment made medical science a distinct discipline, medicine was studied alongside other pursuits, such as astronomy and alchemy, for example. As such, it has always been around in some form or other in folk traditions.

What forms of alternative medicine are there?

There are plenty of different alternative therapies. One of the best known is traditional Chinese medicine which includes things like acupuncture and massage, processes that are designed to rebalance the body. Then, there are so-called supernatural forms of alternative medicine which include disciplines like reiki and Blofeld therapy. Some people believe in the power of faith to heal, something that is common in certain Christian communities, for instance. Herbalism is another form which uses the powers of plants in different combinations, to provide cures.

Can alternative medicine kill?

Like conventional medicine, it is possible to harm as well as heal with any therapy, especially if careful monitoring is not maintained, particularly of doses, for example. If any practice that is harmful to the body continues for long enough, no matter how well-intentioned that might be, then it is possible that it could be lethal. That said, few direct deaths are recorded from alternative medicine, and many people find it helps with their conventional treatment, even if it is merely for the placebo effect it causes.

Is alternative medicine scientifically proven?

Some people say that alternative medicine has no basis in science, but this is untrue. Many studies into it have been conducted over the years, albeit with varying results. Overall, some alternative medicines are shown to have a more reliable effect than others, and these are the ones that are sometimes prescribed in the West to assist patients with particular needs. Acupuncture is just one such example, but there are others. Like anything that treats people, results vary from person to person and from study to study. In this regard, many alternative medicine treatments are not that different from ones produced by scientific research.

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The term holistic medicine relates to a wide number of therapies that are designed to treat the whole of a person, both their body and mind. It is often, therefore, seen in contrast to the drug therapies offered by big pharmaceutical companies – and surgery, for that matter – as a means of dealing with all ailments rather than focusing on 'cures' for specific pathogens or treating individual symptoms. Some, therefore, argue that holistic medicine frames conventional Western medicine as one that is narrow in its approach and ultimately unnatural. Holistic medicine is consequently considered an alternative therapy or, more accurately, a combination of alternative therapies. Today, some doctors combine the principals behind holistic therapies with conventional ones. However, this is not yet routine in the West.
Based on over 3,500 years of accumulated knowledge and skills, traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM as it is often called, is an alternative health system that is used widely all over Asia and especially, of course, in China itself. There are several different disciplines within TCM, which include herbal medicine, massage, exercise regimes, acupuncture, bone-setting, cupping and coining. The origins of the sorts of traditional forms of Chinese medicine we see being practised today go all the way back to the Shang dynasty. Although some western physicians have little time for traditional Chinese medicine, a number of western-style field trials have shown success despite this not being universal by any means. Overall, TCM is continuing to win support and even admiration outside of its traditional heartland in China.
Also known as herbal medicine, herbalism is the term that covers the use of plants as medical treatments. This means that traditional medicine – which has been practised all over the world for centuries – is a part of herbalism. In modern medicine, some aspects of herbalism persist, usually because an active ingredient within a particular plant is isolated in the laboratory in order to make a drug therapy. In some cases, materials that are not derived from plant life are considered to be a part of a herbalists toolkit, too. This includes some minerals derived from shells or animal parts as well as honey extracts and fungi. Sometimes herbalism is used to make specific therapies for conditions. In other cases, it is used to fashion dietary supplements which help to prevent ailments from occurring in the first place.
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